Fatty Liver: Know why it is known as a ‘silent killer’


Dr Roy Patankar, leading Gastroenterologist & Director of Zen Hospital

The liver can be called as the second largest solid organ in one’s body. Yes, you have heard it right! Proper functioning of the liver is essential for your overall well-being. Your liver tends to carry out many vital functions, which may also involve manufacturing those essential proteins, along with the metabolism of fats and carbohydrates. Furthermore, it also helps flush out harmful biochemical waste products and may detoxify alcohol, certain drugs, and also environmental toxins. It also forms and secretes bile which contains bile acids to enhance your digestion and intestinal absorption of fats and the fat-soluble vitamins which are A, D, E, and K.

Today, a lot of people suffer from the fatty liver which is becoming a growing matter of concern. According to a study published in the Journal of Hepatology, approximately 2 million deaths per year worldwide are caused due to liver disease. Not only this, as per the Centres For Disease Control and Prevention, 4.5 million adults have been diagnosed with liver disease. Globally, one in four adults suffers from fatty liver disease. Whereas, as per the new data presented during the International Liver Congress 2019, 1 in 5 young adults show signs of fatty liver. Young adults in the age group of 24 years showed a high prevalence of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, with progression increasing with age even in this small birth cohort.  Surely, these figures are harrowing! Here, we decide what is fatty liver, why is it known as a ‘silent killer’ and how to deal with it. 

What is fatty liver?

Fatty liver, also known as hepatic steatosis, can be described as the build-up of fat in one’s liver. You might be aware of the fact that it is normal to have small amounts of fat in your liver, but too much of fat deposition in your liver can be harmful to you.  We are not kidding! It can lead to serious health issues which can be life-threatening. One may suffer from it owing to heavy drinking. Hence, as time passes, too much alcohol consumption can cause a build-up of fat inside your liver cells. This can give a tough time to your liver and it won’t be able to function properly. But, did you know? You can get it even if you don’t opt for alcohol. Fatty liver can be classified into two categories- Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (It can be termed as the first stage of liver damage caused by alcohol abuse) and Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (It can be described as the build-up of extra fat in one’s liver cells which is not caused by alcohol. It is normal for the liver to contain some fat. Moreover, if more than 5% – 10% percent of the liver’s weight is fat, then it is known as a fatty liver (steatosis).

Symptoms:

There are no symptoms typically tied to it. But, according to various studies, about 20 per cent of people suffering from fatty liver inflammation progress to worse conditions. On its occurrence, one may feel fatigued or experience abdominal discomfort as well. Moreover, your liver might appear slightly enlarged, and this can be detected by your doctor. Hence, experts advise people to immediately seek medical attention.  Tons of research suggest that the excess amount of fat in the liver, along with certain medical conditions, can lead to inflammation. Once your liver becomes inflamed, you may exhibit symptoms like abdominal pain, fatigue, weakness, confusion along with weight loss. Beware! If your fatty liver progresses to cirrhosis and liver failure, then, you may also show symptoms like an enlarging, fluid-filled abdomen, you may also get jaundice of the skin and eyes and abnormal bleeding. 

Why it fatty liver is referred to a silent killer?

Fatty liver is also known as a ‘silent killer,’ as there are only a few signs of it and cannot be diagnosed easily. It can be termed as a silent killer because most of the patients may tend to experience no symptoms, owing to which they will be unaware of their condition. In such a situation, one may be only diagnosed by it when he/she visits the doctor. Patients should also watch out if their liver becomes inflamed as they may easily feel fatigued. Moreover, 10-20 per cent of people suffering from the fatty liver may get hepatitis, which may further put them at the risk of cirrhosis and liver cancer. Hence, it is the need of the hour for the patients suffering from fatty liver to take charge of their health. 

Speaking about the risk factors, people having type 2 diabetes, consuming a lot of alcohol, having high cholesterol and high blood pressure and taking too many medications may suffer from it. Not only this, but a faulty lifestyle can also be the culprit here. 

Know why early diagnosis the key?    

If you are looking to tackle it then a timely diagnosis would help you do so. People following hectic lifestyles, opting for poor eating habits and those not taking enough amount of rest are subjected to liver-related problems. Unfortunately, many of them fail to detect the issue and deal with it at an early stage as mentioned earlier; there are usually no obvious signs and symptoms of it. So, we urge people to go for regular check-ups and follow-ups and see to it that they monitor the functions of their body. Any irregularity spotted should be immediately discussed with the expert. In some cases, your doctor may advise you to go for imaging tests, like those that check for fat in one’s liver and the stiffness of it as well. Liver stiffness can also mean fibrosis, which can be called as scarring of the liver. Not only this, but some people may also have to undergo a liver biopsy to confirm the diagnosis, and get to know about how badly is one’s liver damaged.  With the help of early diagnosis and follow-ups, one will be able to avoid the permanent damage to the liver. This is so because the fatty liver is a reversible condition which can only be tackled with the help of a healthy lifestyle. 

Embrace these lifestyle modifications

Opt for a well-balanced diet: One should make sure that he/she includes fresh fruits and vegetables in the diet. Cut down on the intake of carbohydrates, fats, and sugar. Alcohol, junk, processed and spicy food are a strict no-no. 

Along with this, one should also kick-off his/her sedentary lifestyle and stay physically active. In case, you are overweight, then cut down those excess kilos by exercising regularly. You can opt for activities like walking, swimming, running, and aerobics. Also, don’t forget to go for check-ups. Opting for a liver function test and check for other factors will allow you to tackle fatty liver at the right time. 

The take-home message: Avoid opting for over-the-counter (OTC) products. Also, don’t self-medicate. Doing so can be harmful to you.

By Dr Roy Patankar, leading Gastroenterologist & Director of Zen Hospital

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